Significant and sustained efforts to improve the quality and currency of my teaching (narrative)

Significant and sustained efforts to improve the quality and currency of my teaching

I think about teaching and learning often. I think about it as a parent of two young children, and also as an educator. As I have explored the affordances of modern forms of information and communications technologies (ICT) for my professional life, I would suggest that nowhere have I embraced those affordances as much as I have in my own teaching. Furthermore, at the beginning of my career as a professor, I was very much the “instructor.” Now, I am much more learner-centered and even aligned with Wesch’s notion of “anti-teaching.” As Wesch (2010) wrote:

I have even toyed with the idea of calling what I do “anti-teaching”, as I have come to the conclusion that “teaching” can actually be a hindrance to learning, especially when it is assumed that learning requires it. As most of us know from our own experience, the best learning almost always occurs in the absence of a teacher, for it is then that learners are free to pursue with great passion the questions that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives. Focusing on the quality of learning, rather than the quality of teaching transforms the entire educational agenda.

As a result of fully embracing modern ICT and a learner-centered approach, my trajectory as a teacher has a dramatic swing to it. Let me try to tell that story.

My first year as an instructor

Other than a single instance as a guest lecturer for a graduate education course while I was in law school, I came to the professoriate with no prior teaching experience.  I did, though, have the good fortune of experiencing a number of model learning facilitators throughout my time as a student, ranging from elementary school all the way through graduate school.  I was also incredibly inspired by great educational thinkers and writers in the progressivist tradition, beginning with Jean Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey, and more recently by the likes of Alfie Kohn.  Thus, inexperience notwithstanding, I was confident that I could proceed successfully and was thankful to my colleagues at Hofstra for giving me the opportunity to facilitate learning among students in the department.

However, shortly before the first week of classes that first semester 10 years ago, I distinctly remember a colleague offering me the following advice: “Don’t be afraid to be boring.”  I think his counsel was well-intentioned, but the truth is that I was terrified; mostly of being boring.  I used the first week of classes to do what is typically done at that point; the students and I introduced ourselves to each other and I introduced them to my goals for the semester.  Though I believed I had designed an interesting and important learning experience, I was certain that I was terribly boring during that first week.

Nonetheless, I convinced myself that the first week had a specific administrative purpose and that true student engagement would begin in the second week.  To that end, for an undergraduate course on the foundations of education, I designed a learning game.  More specifically, I asked the students to read a chapter in a textbook about the history of education in the United States.  When the students arrived for the second class session, I split them into two teams for a Jeopardy-style game.  As a proxy for a buzzer, each student was given a noisemaker of the sort you might see at a New Year’s Eve party.  The game was divided into different parts, including a True-False section and a “who am I?” section.  During certain parts of the game, students “buzzed” when they thought they knew the answer.  There was laughter, noise and lots of activity; I walked away from that class session feeling confident that I could, in fact, foster active learning.

My years as an instructor fostering active learning

The challenge for me, from that point forward, has always been to cultivate student engagement through active, meaningful learning.  Active learning, according to Bonwell and Eison (1991), is defined as “instructional activities involving students in doing things and thinking about what they are doing“ (p. 2).  Meaningful learning is about relevance, both in terms of content and form. And, in my years at Hofstra and even my first few years at VCU, I believe, for the most part, I was able to facilitate active, meaningful learning. What follows are some examples:

EADM 281L: Web-surveys for School Leaders. During my early years at Hofstra, many of the doctoral students were using survey research designs for their dissertation.  However, my colleagues and I noted that the candidates came to that work with little to no formal experience with or understanding of even the basics of survey research.  Therefore, I gladly agreed to offer a survey research course.  Knowing that it would be taken by sitting and aspiring school leaders, I designed the course specifically for that audience.  I also focused almost entirely on Web-based surveys since I had a distinct interest in promoting and modeling the use of technology by and for school leaders.  Furthermore, I was inspired by a news story I had read about the superintendent of a major urban school district who had administered an online survey to gauge the community’s satisfaction with his work.

Each student in my course was tasked with creating a survey to be administered to professional colleagues; they would choose a research question and related measurement scales that would yield an analysis that would be of actual value to key stakeholders in their school community.  One student, for example, was a principal in a school with an historically high teacher turnover rate.  She administered a survey of her faculty to gauge their job satisfaction and analyzed the data so as to locate possible sources of teacher attrition.  Another student was the assistant principal of a high school where student behavior had become a major issue.  He asked the teachers in the school to complete a school climate survey so that he could assess possible courses of school improvement.

To make the course even more meaningful, we had to do some creative scheduling.  During the three weeks that composed the January session at Hofstra, I met with the students to learn about survey research and how to design and administer a Web-based survey.  They researched the measurement scales and built the survey on a Web-based platform made available to all students through the University.  The surveys were published in the first week of the spring semester.  To give the respondents time to complete the survey, we did not meet again until the latter-half of the spring semester.  At that point, we worked on managing, analyzing and reporting the data.  The course concluded with student presentations of their findings.  All members of the doctoral community were invited to attend these presentations.

EADM 280P: Politics of Education. That sort of authenticity is regularly built into my courses and especially the assessments I use.  Thus, as another example of my commitment to active and meaningful learning, for the Politics of Education undergraduate course I developed at Hofstra, the final project initially consisted of a debate.  Students were given a proposition that they researched in small groups and worked together to gather evidence in support of the argument they would make during the debate held during the final class session.  While I felt that activity worked well and allowed me to assess student learning, for the second year of that course, I changed the final project to a mock school board meeting.  Small teams of students were assigned a role (e.g. parents, students, teachers, etc.) and tasked with developing arguments for or against three applications for charter schools the hypothetical school district was considering.  Each charter school was based on different conceptions of teaching and learning, so students were forced to consider fundamental issues about the purpose of public education and the politics of education.  I served as the representative of the school board to whom the students made their presentations.  They had to make an oral presentation as well as submit their case in writing.  I felt the move to the mock school board meeting, which was based on a case from the Journal of Cases in Educational Administration, caused the students to reflect more on basic questions of power and justice, concepts which form the basis of the definition of politics that framed the course.

EADM 244 (Hofstra) & ADMS 611 (VCA): School Law. Whenever I taught a section of School Law, either at Hofstra or VCU, I was fully committed to using a form of the Socratic Method.  Typically used by law school professors, the Socratic Method is a “dialectical method” that “often involves an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against another; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, strengthening the inquirer’s own point.”  As the questioner, I try to stimulate thinking about ideas raised by landmark Supreme Court cases, the actual opinions of which the students have read.  This form of pedagogy has typically been met with initial skepticism by my students.  Over time, though, the value of the method becomes clear to most students.  Still, though, some students have a difficult time accepting the professor as the one with all the questions and little by way of answers.  In some cases, I have had to step out of my role as questioner to reflect with the students and to assess their learning more traditionally.  I also try to find time to step out of my role as questioner to allow for interaction between the students, especially where the issues are controversial and I see value in having the students engage each other.  In other words, over time I have reflected on my pedagogy and learned to modify it in ways that allow students to negotiate meaning and for me to assess their learning.

I will never forget an email I received from one student at the end of a semester in which I taught school law:

Good Morning,

Thanks for a great LAST CLASS EVER J

I was telling my mom this morning how I was feeling sort of ‘fragile’ and I asked you to refrain from the Socratic Method. I shared your response with her…she said…

Isn’t it nice to have people in our lives that truly want to teach so that people learn…people who are understanding and respectful of unique differences and value those differences.

Yes, I said, it is! And, I just wanted to share that I am so thankful that you are one of those people in my life!  Many people benefit from your expertise and wonderful style.  Thanks!…

Have a good day,

Gina” (by e-mail, dated 12/06/06)


The simultaneous move to learner-centered and technologically innovative practice

Student reviews of my teaching were originally quite good and got even better over time (see Evidence of Teaching Excellence page). Peer evaluations of my teaching at Hofstra generated excellent ratings. But, in the last couple of years, as a result of much research, reflection and informal learning on my part, two considerations clearly emerged for me. First, despite my commitment to the ideals of progressive education, and my relative success in facilitating active, meaningful learning, I believe I was still too much of an instructor.  I believe I delivered information too frequently and did not give students enough opportunity to explore and make their own meaning of the learning experiences I had created.  Second, rapid advances in information and communications technologies changed the game dramatically. Information was suddenly ubiquitous and accessible, and the modern Web afforded new possibilities for both self-directed and collaborative learning endeavors.

In fact, In the digital information age, in an age of “Web 2.0”, I came to understand that a range of critiques can be brought to bear on any theory or pedagogical practice that assumes learning as individualized and that punishes and rewards students for their ability to construct knowledge on their own.  One such critique is the contention that advances in technology render obsolete any theory of learning that limits learning to certain times and/or places.  Specifically, “[u]biquitous learning is a new educational paradigm made possible in part by the affordances of digital media” (Cope & Kalantzis, 2007, p. 1).  Furthermore, contemporary forms of computer-mediated communications and related networking technologies change the nature of learning by enabling social constructions of knowledge.  Weinberger’s (2007) example of Wikipedia is the ultimate representation of this collision of technology-enabled networked learning; i.e. Wikipedia represents an instance of social knowledge (i.e. it is an attempt to capture, as public knowledge, what can be observed via the interactions of numerous instances of private knowledge) facilitated by a simple technology (the wiki).

Imagine two people editing and reediting a Wikipedia article, articulating their differences on the article’s discussion page.  They edge toward an article acceptable to both of them through a public negotiation of knowledge and come to a resolution.  Yet the page they’ve negotiated may not represent either person’s point of view precisely.  The knowing happened not in either one’s brain but in their conversation.  The knowledge exists between the contributors.  It is knowledge that has no knower.  Social knowing changes who does the knowing and how, more than it changes the what of knowledge (Weinberger, 2007, p. 143).

Thus, with the nature of knowledge changing from individually to socially constructed, and with the emergence of social media technologies, a new theory of learning must be enacted.  Siemens (2005) offers “connectivism” as a learning theory that moves away from objective-based learning and that accounts for the networked learning opportunities afforded by the digital age.  Undergirding connectivism is a view of learning as “a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual.”  According to Siemens (2005):

The starting point of connectivism is the individual. Personal knowledge is comprised of a network, which feeds into organizations and institutions, which in turn feed back into the network, and then continue to provide learning to individual. This cycle of knowledge development (personal to network to organization) allows learners to remain current in their field through the connections they have formed.

Cormier (2008) takes connectivism a step further in the form of rhizomatic education.  The rhizome is offered as a metaphor for knowledge.

the…rhizomatic plant has no center and no defined boundary; rather, it is made up of a number of semi-independent nodes, each of which is capable of growing and spreading on its own, bounded only by the limits of its habitat.  In the rhizomatic view, knowledge can only be negotiated, and the contextual, collaborative learning experience shared by constructivist and connectivist pedagogies is a social as well as a personal knowledge-creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premises (Cormier, 2008, para. 3).

At the same time that I was learning about these new learning theories for the digital age, I continued to explore my interest in other learning theories and instructional design principles, specifically constructionism and project-based learning.

Constructionism – the N word as opposed to the V word–shares constructivism’s connotation of learning as “building knowledge structures” irrespective of the circumstances of the learning.  It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it is a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe (Papert & Harel, 1991, p. 1).

Where constructionism is the theory of learning, one application of that theory is project-based learning (PBL).  Definitions of project-based learning are varied.  However, Thomas (2000) in citing Bereiter & Scardamalia (1999), claims that “in order to be considered as a PBL project, the central activities of the project must involve the transformation and construction of knowledge (by definition: new understandings, new skills) on the part of students” (p. 4).

I had been integrating technology into my teaching for a number of years. In fact, in 2009 and 2010, I earned teaching awards for the innovative use of technology in teaching. Also, in 2009, I was given the Judy S. Richardson Literacy and Technology Innovations Fund Award. And, I had integrated elements of both constructionism through project-based learning for years.

But, late in 2010, after reading about these new learning theories, and interacting with Siemens, Cormier, Stager, et al. through various forms of social media, I began to wonder : What, then, does a fully online course in educational leadership constructed around these learning theories and instructional design principles look like?

In Spring 2011, I facilitated my first fully online course (ADMS 707 – The Politics of Education). That course, and ADMS 647 (Educational Technology for School Leaders), are the only courses I have taught since the Fall of 2010, and they are fully online. Thus, I have not taught a face-to-face class for the last three semesters. Both of the online courses are designed around a mashup of learning theories and instructional design principles: connectivism, constructionism, and project-based learning. What follows is a brief description of one of those courses, to give you a sense of just how different and innovative the approach is.


Educational Technology for School Leaders ( ADMS 647) is a fully online graduate course designed for sitting and aspiring school leaders. Students in the course are typically classroom or school-based educators enrolled in a masters or post-masters program of study aimed at achieving administrative certification. In the last few years, the course has been a required part of the program of study for a masters or post-masters degree in educational leadership, though some students are graduate students in other programs.The course is loosely framed around the National Educational Technology Standards for School Administrators (NETS-A) in that each of the five modules is based on the five main NETS-A standards. Each module consists of 2-3 weeks of activities.

The students are informed from the outset that their learning will be:

  • Collaborative – everyone, including the instructor, learns together and takes responsibility for everyone else’s learning.
  • Documented – the processes of learning are more important that the specifics of the knowledge constructed. The learning process, therefore, is documented in the…
  • Open – by exposing learning to colleagues and the public, students take the first steps in taking control of their digital identity and expanding their horizons as connected learners.

Towards those ends, the course is constructed through a combination of digital platforms and tools. The main course site is built in Google Sites. The collaborative authoring nature of Google Sites allows for the course site to be in constant development. The basic structures and core descriptions are built into the site initially, but students build parts of the site over the course of the semester. Posterous, a blogging service, is used as a discussion space. A Diigo group serves as a clearinghouse of information and resources the students curate for each other. All of those spaces are open and public, though a listserv is established should the students wish to address the other students by email in a “safer” more private space. Finally, students are encouraged to utilize Twitter, though they are not mandated to have an account or use the microblogging service.

In the first weeks of the course, students are expected to gain familiarity and comfort with their “digital toolbelts.” The first module is all about scaffolding their technological literacy so that the students gain confidence in using the tools that they will use throughout the semester, but also so they can gain a sense of the possibilities for educational technology. By the end of the first module, students are expected to build a multimedia tutorial page of a Web 2.0 tool/service/app. This causes them to learn about a tool, learn how to write to the web, and results in a collection of tutorials from which the whole class can learn. This scaffolding of technological literacy and awareness is necessary as the focus of the course moves to substantive leadership issues such as technology planning/funding, legal/ethical issues in educational technology, etc.

The remaining modules are more leadership-focused, though the instructional design remains consistently focused around connectivism and constructionism. For the latter, students are regularly asked to locate relevant resources, share them through the Diigo social bookmarking group and reflect on what they encounter by posting to the course blog. All of these spaces are public and open allowing for connections to relevant individuals and resources. For example, from time-to-time, the professor invites relevant Twitter followers to comment on student reflections on the blog. Students can comment on resources shared in Diigo within the group, and are also asked to comment on each others’ blog posts as they feel moved to do so.

Also built on connectivist learning principles, students are assigned a virtual shadowing project wherein they are asked to “follow” any number of educational leaders on Twitter, on blogs and in other forms of social media. Students are given a list of 20 educational leaders who are active on social media that they can follow or shadow virtually. They are encouraged to engage with these educational leaders with the hope that they will then connect with other educators within the online networks of these leaders.

Constructionism runs through much of the course as well. Students build the multimedia tutorials at the end of the first module. For the virtual shadowing project, they are given a choice of how to submit their reflections. Some choose to build a multimedia page on to the course site, some send a compilation of resources via OneNote and/or Evernote, and still others offer a reflection in video form. Finally, for the final course project, students must complete a digital storytelling project which asks them to create a 5-minute multimedia narrative reflecting their visions of school leaders of the 21st Century.

Here is one student’s final project:

In other words, all throughout the course, students are expect to connect, share, synthesize, reflect, and create. There is very little content delivery and no formal assessment. This can be a bit disarming for the adult learners in the course, but the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.

For a more complete overview of my approach to teaching and learning in a fully online course, please see this video compiled by Bud Diehl at the VCU CTE:


NEXT: Evidence of Teaching Excellence (narrative) →

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